A recent report in the Independent newspaper suggests that the majority of the UK public support the government’s policy of increasing spending on aid to developing countries. Further, they seem to believe that we should be spending much (much) more on aid than we currently do, and way beyond the target set by the government. For those that support aid, this appears to be good news. It certainly paints a different picture to the results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UKPOM) based at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which suggest that over 70 per cent of people think aid spending should be cut.
But which of these different views of the world do we believe?
And, why is there such a divergence in evidence on how the UK public feels about aid to developing countries? Largely, this reflects the way in which questions are asked in our surveys and how we interpret the results. In the case of this recent report, which incidentally was commissioned by David Cameron’s Director of Political Strategy – people were asked whether they agreed that:
“…even as we deal with our deficit, Britain is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world and we should be proud we are continuing our commitment to international development.”In total, 50 per cent agreed with this statement, with 37 per cent disagreeing. It is perhaps surprising that more people did not respond positively to a question that generates such a ‘warm glow’ inside.
Interpreting these responses depends on whether we believe that most people who answered the survey were aware of “our commitment” in terms of how much the UK aims to spend on aid. Even if they were told the amount in pounds, many likely struggled to interpret whether this is ‘big’ or ‘small’ or perhaps more importantly ‘sufficient’ or ‘insufficient’.
Perhaps one indication of this is that survey respondents, on average, thought that the UK should allocate almost eight per cent of government spending to aid….which is more than it currently spends on national defence, police and the criminal justice system, transport, etc. Does the public really believe we should spend this much? If so, are they happy for taxes to rise to pay for it and/or for spending to be cut (even more than is currently taking place) on some ‘big ticket’ items? The questions used in the UKPOM try to make this reality more apparent to respondents. Thus, it is not surprising that support for increases in aid spending are more muted.
So do we really know how the public feel about the UK’s aid to developing countries, and especially whether they support increases in aid spending? Certainly we can almost get any number we like through careful choice of how the question is posed. However, it seems that even when we generate a ‘warm glow’ in our respondents, still only half support increases in aid spending, whilst over a third do not.
Whilst such a negative perspective on public support for aid may not be welcomed amongst those of us who work in the area of international development, there is nothing to be gained from a pretence that the public are more positive about aid than they actually are. Rather, we need to redouble our efforts to ‘turn public opinion around’….by raising awareness and knowledge of where aid works (and where it doesn’t).